Last Wednesday, Carolyn and I took the train from Baltimore to Gap, Pennsylvania, where Carolyn’s family lives. One of my favorite things about Thanksgiving is travelling the Wednesday before the big day. (Of course everybody travels that day, and I’d guess my opinion is not widely shared; forgive me if your flight was delayed, or if you ran into hellish traffic, or if in some other way your travelling experience was unenjoyable.) I’m talking about a day of travelling that goes smoothly, that leaves you coming in from the cold at a reasonable hour, after which you throw your laundry (if you’re in college or your mid-20s and haven’t yet acquired self-respect) on the floor of your parents’ laundry room, kick off your shoes, grab some food from the fridge, and settle in on the couch to badger your siblings about which pre-Thanksgiving movie you’re going to watch. All the while you know Thanksgiving awaits you—a glorious day of eating, chatting, lying around, watching football, and eating some more. That first Wednesday night, though, you’ve got the whole weekend ahead of you. Life is good.
Carolyn didn’t bring any laundry home, but aside from that the experience getting into Gap was about like I imagined. It was cold and almost sleeting outside—the perfect weather from which to escape. We pulled into the driveway (Carolyn’s dad and sister having picked us up at the train station) at 7:15, and dinner was hot on the table, just waiting for us. Afterwards, I amusingly observed Carolyn bicker with her sisters and brother about various things. Then we all played some ping-pong, and eventually settled in for a movie—the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas Transition Classic, Miracle on 34th Street.
As Carolyn’s sister was setting up the DVD, with family members barking orders in the background, it occurred to me that in a whirlwind year of change, spending this holiday away from Iowa—and away from my family—was perhaps the most concrete example of how different my life is from, say, a year ago. I had never before spent Thanksgiving away from my family, and it made me sad to think that this would be the first of many such years.
It’s deeper than just Thanksgiving, of course. Part of this is simply homesickness, which holidays tend to intensify. But, as Carolyn wrote weeks ago, one thing about growing up is the chance to establish new places to call home. From this, I have gained something wonderful—the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving in Gap.
And yet, Thanksgiving is an intensely personal day, a day centered around family and familial traditions. As wonderful as it was to spend Thanksgiving with Carolyn’s family’s, it just wasn’t my Thanksgiving. Throughout the day, it was hard to ignore the little voice in my head that kept pointing out all of the ways this was a little bit different from the Thanksgivings I’d known.
It started with our families’ different approaches to food. For example, my brother and I subscribe to a philosophy that holds that fasting from morning until dinner increases our ability to gorge ourselves as much as possible on turkey, stuffing, etc. Carolyn’s family, in contrast, attempted to eat as much as possible in the aggregate, without regard to a rigid schedule. We started with breakfast at 9, appetizers a couple hours later, a small lunch, and then an early afternoon dinner—scheduled to end just as the late afternoon football game begins—followed by more appetizers, desserts, and, finally, leftovers (when the fun began anew).
Then there was the fact that Carolyn’s family, much larger than mine to be sure, watched every minute of the Macy’s Day Parade, intensely analyzing and discussing all aspects of it (the volume of the TV, the worthiness of the singers, the size of the floats, Macy’s versus the Philadelphia parade, and so on and so forth). And because every family member had his or her own dinner dish to cook (Carolyn and I whipped up a squash and potato dish, which was rather delicious, if I do say so myself), everyone was in and out of the kitchen, with the stress levels rising and falling like waves. Small crises continually popped up here and there as room in the oven shrank and the Brussels sprouts came close to catching on fire. At my parents’ house, Thanksgiving morning is a quiet affair, with my mom doing most of the cooking in the kitchen and my dad, brother and me reading or chatting in the den.
And then, of course, there was the food itself. Carolyn had been warning me about the stuffing for several days. My mom’s stuffing, you see, is more of a casserole: a tasty, tasty concoction with apples, celery, and sausage. It might be my favorite dish aside from the turkey. Carolyn’s mom’s stuffing was very different; it consisted of combining bread that we’d all ripped up the night before with onions, milk, and eggs, cooked for hours in the crock pot. Apart from the name, the two dishes are nothing alike. (In the end, while the Warner stuffing was fine, it just couldn’t quite replace my mom’s stuffing. To Carolyn’s mom, if you’re reading this, I mean absolutely no insult.)
After dinner, we all lurched sleepily into the living room for the Cowboys game, which led to another huge difference: getting to watch football on Thanksgiving. As it turned out, this game was the true test of the weekend. Because you see, I am a Cowboys fan, like my father and grandfather before me. Carolyn’s family, on the other hand, are all Eagles fans—all of them, that is, except her mom, who, glory be, happens to also be a Cowboys fan.
If you know anything about the NFL, you know that the Eagles and the Cowboys are bitter division rivals. I hate the Eagles. And Carolyn’s family pretty much hates the Cowboys (not Carolyn, to be fair; she’s actually pretty respectful). The Cowboys were playing the Raiders, who got out to a quick 21-7 lead which included a fumbled opening kickoff that was returned for a touchdown. It didn’t look good at first, and Carolyn’s dad and brother and sisters were chuckling with glee. But the Cowboys fought back, eventually winning by a touchdown, and the two Cowboys fans were able to return to a contented, post-Thanksgiving meal languor. Yes, life was good indeed. I couldn’t help but throw in a couple jabs at Carolyn’s brother (it helped that I was beating him in our fantasy football league). All in all, it was a lovely end to the day.
As I said, it wasn’t the Thanksgiving I’m used to. But when I stopped focusing on the differences and started just enjoying the day, I realized it was wonderful: Carolyn and I were together; it was warm, comfortable, and (importantly) very tasty. It’s too bad the Cowboys hadn’t beaten the Eagles, though. That might’ve made Thanksgiving perfect.